Pholympics

vietnamese-pho-recipe-2If you asked me for my favourite things to eat, I’m pretty sure Pho would be up there. I was first turned on to this deeply flavoured, hearty but aromatic (in the right hands,) concoction by Anthony Bourdain in one of his books called ‘How I became too cool a chef to bother cooking much anymore,’ or something like that. I don’t mean to be snide – ‘Kitchen Confidential’ was excellent. ‘A Cook’s Tour’ seemed to be exactly what someone who’s worked hard their whole life would do with the opportunities to have a bloody good time success afforded him. So fair play. And he can certainly spot a trend. I don’t know how much it was down to him, but nowadays you can’t move for joints offering beef noodle soups all over the world, from roadside stalls to upmarket malls. I’m now slightly worried there aren’t any left in Vietnam, but until I get round to ticking that particular country off my bucket list, I shall just have to eat their national dish elsewhere. I love it – my wife makes a brilliant one, there are pop ups offering speciality ones, huge chains offering dizzying varieties and what is so fascinating about it is that for what is ostensibly a fairly simple dish, it can accommodate so many permutations.

I eat a lot of Pho. It is comfort food, hangover cure, refreshing, satisfying and reassuring all in one go – all those things derived from the magical Asian alchemy of hot, sour, sweet and salty.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also thought of the word ‘Pholympics’ and decided I wanted to use it.

So, from now on, I’m going to keep a record of the Phos I try, and give them a star rating out of five. As a comedian, I know just how irritating that can be, so I feel it is time to annoy someone else with it. I’m even going to do halves, cos they’re really bloody infuriating. And I’m going to use a soup bowl emoji instead of actual stars, like some kind of irritating broth hipster, and you can’t even punch me because I am living far away inside the magical internet. So there.

 

IMG_98241. My Pho, Liverpool.

Bit of a game of two halves this, which seems appropriate. However, as I was up in Liverpool for four days and went twice, that should tell you this funky little eatery is well worth a visit. There are bright murals on the wall, lots of good things on the menu, and a definite ring of authenticity. I have decided that for Pholympics I am always going to order the Phò Tái – with thinly sliced beef, partly for consistency but mainly because I always do anyway. First however, I ordered the tiger prawn summer rolls, a copper-bottomed Viet classic, which looked so amazingly appetizing when they were delivered, I chomped greedily in, only to be surprised by their almost complete tastelessness. This was weird, as everything looked so right, from the juicy little crustaceans in their pancakes, to the chopped red chillies in the dipping sauce. They just tasted a bit meh. Sorry, but that was that.

The pho arrived shortly after and was, well, decent. Not as deeply flavoured a broth as the very best, despite the boast of the ten hour cooking time and the need to taste before adding chillies. I added all my chillies, although, as usual, I then spent quite a lot of time fishing them all out again. Not bad at all, and certainly good enough, cheap enough and close enough to return for lunch the next day, when things took a definite step up. Unfortunately part of this involved a transfer to a fixed high stool that seemed to be ergonomically designed to prevent you from ever getting comfortable. However, some chicken summer rolls were a vast improvement on the previous day’s prawn version, and a plate of crispy chicken wings sent me flying back to a little street stall I used to hit with alarming regularity on a couple of trips I’ve made to Kuala Lumpur. These were excellent, and the soup was better too. Not that the first one was bad, but what this does speak of is a kitchen that makes everything fresh every day, and all I got was a little variety, which is frankly, what we spend most of our lives pining for.

Both bills came in at just under £20, and I’m pretty certain I’ll be popping in next time I’m in Liverpool. I would advise you to do the same. So, maybe not a gold medal to kick off Pholympics, but certainly a decent silver.

🍜 🍜 🍜 and a ½

Feb 2018

OK Diner

IMG_9610The life of the itinerant comedian is not always* a glamorous one. I think it was Bill Bailey who decided to take a break from the circuit when he realized he had a favourite service station. This will be a familiar sensation to any road warrior – a title a friend of mine laughingly bestows upon us as it sounds a lot better than Waze Guys or Costa Defectives.

You need only a passing acquaintance with Kerouac or Cash to be imbued with the romance of the road, but it is a different beast in the UK. Surrounded as we are by coast, any road trip longer than a day inevitably ends up rather damp. As a result, even the least experienced comedian soon knows our dear, benighted and presently very messed up country better than almost any other profession. Quite early in their career, he or she will have developed preferred routes, haunts and eateries. Many of these are burnt on our cerebellums in perpetuity, or would have been had Google Maps not surgically removed our ability to remember the simplest of directions a few years ago, in much the same way mobile phones robbed us of our memory for numbers the decade before.

My own personal speciality these days is the A1, a hilariously underdeveloped sibling to the M1, which is often quieter and and less given to pile ups and average speed checks than its closest relative. One of my favourite foibles of this resolutely unsexy road are the occasional Sex Shops which regularly pop up either side of it. I have no idea who gets turned on by endless miles of trunk road, but there is clearly a market for those who get to Peterborough and realize they’ve forgotten their butt plugs. There is another one just past Grantham in case you’ve forgotten anything twice, and should you leave your love eggs somewhere (or in someone) up North, there’s another on the southbound carriageway just before the A14. Which must be a relief.

There are also a number of branches of the OK Diner which appear from time to time, giving the entire road the feeling of a slightly tawdry, overlong and under illuminated Las Vegas strip. Sex shops and British diners. It’s half a surprise they don’t just rename it Route 69 and have done.

Now, I have a deep and abiding love for Americana, and America. As it goes through the torments and convulsions with Trump that are not so very different from our own with Brexit, I feel a very great sense of sorrow for the present state of a country I have lived, worked and studied in. I also have an enormous fondness for the diner, whether in the art of Hopper or Hollywood, or the endless cups of coffee I used to consume at Palookah’s in Wilkes-Barre PA, while listening to Lee Dorsey’s Yah-Yah on the table jukebox when I was 18 and lucky enough to be at High School there. I have always been tempted by the OK Diner experience, if only for the resolutely British lack of ambition in its name.

Which is, sadly, where the problem lies. There are many things we British do well, but aping the Americans is not one of them. One only need observe Wimpy, tuition fees or the ongoing inability of British TV to produce a decent nightly topical comedy show (I am still available, dammit,) to prove this. However, a combination of my own inexorable progress around the roadmap of the UK, and a free day during which I discovered the existence of an OK Diner round the corner from my Holiday Inn, just outside Chester, meant I had both the time, and the inclination, to see just how OK the OK experience was. If it was truly awful, at least I could blame the Welsh.

To be fair, while a concrete cluster of Subways, McDonalds, KFC and petrol availability does not scream ‘destination,’ the designers at OK Diner have stuck manfully to the task of furiously ignoring their locale. They have beefed up the décor with exactly the sort of prints and bric a brac that create the sensation of somewhere desperately trying to pretend it’s America whilst resolutely refusing to acknowledge it overlooks the A55. But hey, the welcome was warm, the music towards the acceptable side of the expected and there was a happy bustle around the place. I was plonked into a solo booth, handed a menu and brought some surprisingly pleasant filter coffee.

Health food, it ain’t, but then you knew that. The menu resembles Donald Trump’s bedside reading. You know where you’re at when the item below the All Day breakfast is entitled ‘The Bigger One’. But then again, it’s a diner – if you want quinoa and bircher muesli, you’re in the wrong place. At times like these, it is best to embrace the situation, which is why, despite considering the burritos, pancakes, burgers et al, I ended up ordering the ‘Homefry Hash’ – ‘New potatoes griddled with onions and red peppers served with our tender beef brisket in a sweet and tangy sauce topped with two fried eggs’ – on the basis that, if nothing else, it did at least contain a vegetable. I don’t count the potatoes or the onions, and admittedly I was daring the sauce to be dreadful.

And you know what? It wasn’t. Despite my worst fears, the sauce was neither over sweet nor too tangy – if anything, it was masked rather effectively by the eggs, and some properly cooked down, melting beef brisket that would put many a pop up street food stall to shame. This was genuinely tasty, filling, and a relative snip at £7.25. Throw in a really very good strawberry milkshake, a touch of Elvis and some delightful Welsh waitresses performing some sort of bizarre relay with the condiments until they collapsed into giggles and I couldn’t have been happier.

Hell, I even ordered dessert. Sadly that is where things went awry. I’m pretty sure their ‘Famous Original Cheesecake’ isn’t all that original. It might be famous, but only in the way, say, Ted Bundy is famous. This was a soggy-bottomed, loveless affair that screamed mass-production and stuck to the roof of your mouth in exactly the way you wished it wouldn’t. There are worse things to have stuck to the roof of your mouth than a baked vanilla cheesecake, but what elevated this to the unspeakable was the metallic crime against raspberries that came slathered upon it. A good raspberry sauce is a thing of beauty; this was a maroon atrocity that would make brake fluid feel good about itself. It looked very much as though the sweet tangy sauce I had feared on my main course had been sneakily smuggled on to my pudding as an afterthought in the vague hope I wouldn’t notice. As Monica’s mother once said of Rachel’s British Trifle with mince, it did not taste good.

Which is a shame really, because everything else did. I may have gone in without the greatest of expectations and a possible inclination to write an unpleasantly snobbish hatchet job. However, my bill for a hearty lunch came to a very reasonable £17.95 before service, which was exemplary. The nice ladies of the Chester OK Diner not only made me feel very welcome, they gave a delightful North Welsh slant on the big-hearted Diner waitress that is a staple of every Hollywood movie from The Wild One to Goodfellas. It was Americana via the A55, and you now what? It was OK. I mean, it’s not my favourite, but I left Elvis, and the building, in a very good mood and, as someone once said in another movie, I’ll be back.
January 2018

 

*very, very rarely.